the faith hope

an ongoing exploration of a thankless subject

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Location: Adelaide, Australia

Founding secretary of the Urbane Society for Sceptical Romantics, a club I take very seriously indeed.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

where there's hope, there's money

what would the wisdom of Solomon say about this? I know what Phineas Barnum would say.

Just on that subject of smug secularists, however...

I caught a fascinating program on SBS the other day - probably connected to this website - which links to the controversial issue of biblical archaeology, and how determined biblical belief interferes with archaeological practice and the questions asked.

I was fascinated in many ways by my own response while watching. I missed the start of the program, and tuned in to hear talk of a dark patinaed tablet with a Hebrew inscription, purporting to be a chip off the old block of Solomon's temple, no less. The breathless narration suggested a stupendous find, for up to this point there had been no extra-biblical evidence of the existence of Solomon or his temple. So the tablet was subjected to the most sophisticated scientific testing, including radiocarbon dating. The scientists found nothing to suggest it wasn't authentic. They even found evidence of fire damage, from the reputed destruction of the temple by the Babylonians.

So, the narrator went on, history would have to be revised, the temple did in fact exist, and he went on to speculate about how exactly the tablet was connected to the temple, and what the inscription meant. By this time I was hopping up and down saying 'no, no, you idiots, you can't leap to such a conclusion, even if this fragment is ancient, to construct a whole temple from it is absurd, there could be all sorts of reasons for making this tablet, even some thousands of years ago, even quite duplicitous reasons, or self-duplicitous reasons, we're dealing with the complexity of human need and pride, this isn't like finding a fossil...'

I was ready to switch channels, I couldn't bear any more of this credulity, but I kept watching, to hear the end of the story and also I think because I detected an undertone of 'something's not quite right here'.

Anyway, the 'priceless artefact' was next offered to some major Israeli museum. Museum officials were quite interested and millions of dollars were expected to change hands, but the museum insisted on knowing more of the provenance of the piece. Detective work led to a wealthy dealer in antiquities named Oded Golan. After a time, the authorities became suspicious of this guy, who was also associated with an ossuary, a box supposedly containing the bones of Jesus's brother James (remember that one? It made news around the world). There were also concerns about the Hebrew inscription, with various experts disagreeing about whether certain words found there would have been used in the time of the quasi-mythical Solomon. I was becoming more engrossed, and of course felt delightfully vindicated in my skepticism.

A new expert was called in, a Gary Cooper-like good guy complete with cowboy hat, and he soon sorted things out. His name was Dr Yuval Goren, and he was a true geo-archaeological heavyweight in spite of his youthful good looks. He found that the earlier scientific experts had been duped. He was able to work out where the stone of the tablet had come from, and found that the actual letters were inscribed recently, though the whole tablet had been treated with various materials to suggest greater age. Goren's findings prompted authorities to arrest Oded Golan, and they soon uncovered a highly sophisticated forgery operation which had been duping museums for some twenty years, to the tune of millions of dollars. The group of forgers, experts in a number of disciplines, had been trading cynically on the public and other experts' desperate need to find verification of biblical stories in the archaeological record. The authenticity of hundreds of artefacts was now under a cloud.

Another massive blow to those slightly sad amateur archaeologists and committed believers who have been clogging up the field for decades. By the end of the program, I must say, my secular smugness knew no bounds...

Friday, September 22, 2006

on secular smugness

where I'm heading - no mystery there

I'm still reading God: a biography, by Jack Miles, which is great pabulum. Throughout, I've been wondering about whether this Jesuit-trained scholar/author is a christian. Obviously he was at one time, but I liked to imagine he'd lapsed. His text didn't make it entirely clear though - he was treating god, or yahweh, or 'elohim as a literary creation, a character who varied and developed over time, and that didn't easily chime with belief, but he stopped short at the obvious next step for a non-believer, the idea that each bible writer refashioned this supernatural being, or amalgam of supernatural beings, according to his own designs. There still seemed the shadowy background idea that a deity was shaping the collection of texts, or at least that something coherent and developmental emerged from analysis of these texts, something literary perhaps, but not fictional. The term 'fictional' is avoided.

Miles seems to reveal himself in an endnote, while defending his use of the Revised Standard Version when quoting from Isaiah: 'Because Isaiah is a prophet heavily invoked in the new testament as prophesying Christ, I may be suspected, as a Christian, of favouring a translation made under Christian auspices.' It came as a bit of a shock - another one bites the dust.

So with this prejudice in my heart, I was interested in his remarks on the mystery and unpredictability of life as expressed in Proverbs:

In a sense, mankind now becomes the protagonist, and God the antagonist. The happier outcomes are assigned to human effort, and God is assigned ultimate, personal responsibility for those times when the opposition, human and circumstantial, proves insuperable. He is made, in a remarkable way, the personification of all that; and as such, he becomes, if not the explanation of it, then at least a name for it. Instead of saying, in other words, 'There is no figuring it out.' Proverbs says, 'There is no figuring him out.'
Secular, contemporary reformulations tend to make impersonal what Proverbs makes personal. Thus, for example, 'Into each life some rain must fall' or such uglier, more recent versions as 'Life's a bitch, and then you die' or 'Shit happens'. But these actually fall short as reformulations of Proverbs 16:4 because they are in no way confessions that life exceeds the speaker's understanding. On the contrary, they are smug in their confidence that all relevant evidence has been examined, and this is the bitter result. In order to avoid claiming omniscience, they would have to admit mystery in some way and thereby cease to be as terminally secular as they wish to be.

These were startling remarks, a real lapse from someone who'd been at such pains to hold aloof from the usual jibes believers and non-believers - myself obviously included - love to toss at each other. However, sophisticated and nuanced though Miles's language generally is, he falls here into the trap that believers fall into with monotonous regularity - that of projection of their own supernatural-saturated worldview onto the views of the other side.
It may or may not be the case that remarks such as 'shit happens', 'life's a bitch...', etc are evidence of smugness. Perhaps my own biases cause me to see less smugness in these remarks than in 'I'm not perfect, just forgiven'. However, the claim that these remarks 'fall short of' Proverbs 16:4 is most revealing in its missing of the point. Proverbs 16:4, to quote the NIV version, goes thus: 'The Lord works out everything for his own ends— even the wicked for a day of disaster.' That's to say, for the Lord, there's no mystery, there's nothing beyond his control. That's the nature of such supernatural entities, and believers are apparently comforted by the sense that at least someone out there knows it all and controls it all. It's an idea completely foreign to the secularist - that's the point. The term 'mystery', used by Miles, implies that there's a key, a solution. The secularist tends to think, instead, of insuperable complexity, a world over which we have little control, which stretches way beyond us in space and time, which is indifferent to us, and which will eventually snuff us out, for all our ingenuity and personal complexity. It has been said that 99% of all species that have existed on this planet are now extinct. Inevitably, we'll go the way of the dodo. This is hardly a cause for smugness.

However, the difference between believing that there's an 'it' to be figured out, and a 'him' is absolutely crucial. Miles almost trips himself up when he says that 'there is no figuring him out' is a reformulation of sorts of 'there is no figuring it out', then seeks to argue that 'shit happens' and other sayings are not in any way confessions of our lack of understanding. I'm not convinced. Certainly they attest to our lack of control, and they may even attest to the idea that we're actually more concerned about control than understanding (an evolutionary adaptation?). Secularists don't need to admit 'mystery' to avoid terminal secularity. I'm sure most of us would feel that terminal secularity is thrust upon us, as is mystery, which might be just a name for all the vast universe that's beyond us.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

seven deadlies

In his critique of Atran and Norenzayan's article mentioned in the last post, George Ainslie made a reference to Christianity's seven deadly sins. He was arguing that self-control is central to religion, as for example only two of the seven deadlies can be described as more harmful to others than self-harming (avarice and wrath). Maybe so, but I couldn't help but wonder about the Christian nature of this famous seven, as I can't recall coming across them in my Bible reading.

The reason being that they're extra-Biblical - while of course being a development of the basic and vague concept of sin found in the Bible. There's a fascinating potted history here. Not that this negates Ainslie's argument in any way - basically he's arguing that A & N's attempt to characterise or define religion (the best attempt I've encountered so far, I must say) is inadequate because it doesn't sufficiently emphasise the self/social control element he claims is common to religions. A & N focus largely on the ease of existential anxiety offered by belief in supernatural, protective entities. My own Biblical readings make me wonder about this self-control role, though with the writings of Paul, which I'm just beginning to study, this kind of thing, and the behaviour of a proper Christian in general, assumes a greater prominence. And it should also be remembered, as with the seven deadlies, that religious morality can reside elsewhere than in the particular religion's sacred texts (in which case it's often an amalgam of purely religious and broader cultural effects).

the unimaginability of oblivion and the adaptability of immortality

Watching or half-watching a program on the late Glenn Gould and was naturally alerted by a few remarks at the death (so to speak). Gould said something like that he had no difficulty in believing in the afterlife, as it seemed far more plausible than the alternative, that's to say, oblivion.

What most struck me about this remark was the 'rational' language in which it was couched (Gould's voice always had this clipped, incisive quality to it, which increased the rational feel), considering the highly emotive nature of the subject. The use of the word 'plausible' seems to turn the idea of an afterlife into a reasoned interpretation of available evidence, rather than a species of wishful thinking. For me, oblivion isn't so much implausible as unimaginable - in fact, far more unimaginable than an afterlife. In this respect, Gould was right. We can imagine an afterlife, no matter what it might be, because it would mean our continued existence, in some form, in some context. Non-existence, on the other hand, is completely outside our experience - it isn't experience. It defeats us, as it is the defeat of us.

This is important, because it's upon the meaning of death - oblivion or immortality - that the faith hope ultimately hinges. In their research article, 'Religion's Evolutionary Landscape', Scott Atran and Ara Norenzayan reported that supernatural beliefs increased markedly when experimental subjects were primed for existential anxiety relating to death, regardless of whether those subjects identified themselves as religious. The effect of this 'death prime' was much stronger than the effect of the 'religious prime' (when subjects were fed information sugesting the efficacy of prayer, for example). A strong belief in immortality as a buffer against death is commonplace and apparently cross-cultural, the researchers conclude. The essential question, of course, is why this should be so - what is it that apparently drives so many of us to deny our mortality, and can an understanding of ourselves as adaptive beings shed light on this phenomenon?